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Gov. Cuomo, NYC Mayor de Blasio Join Striking Charter Workers After 6-Month Impasse

Phillip Dampier September 20, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 1 Comment

Gov. Cuomo speaking at rally in support of striking Charter/Spectrum workers. (Image courtesy: IBEW Local 3)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio joined thousands of union workers in Brooklyn and Manhattan on Monday to support the workers’ six-month impasse with Charter Communications.

“We do not accept a greedy corporation trying to undercut the most basic rights of working people,” Mayor de Blasio said in Manhattan, referring to Charter and its CEO Thomas Rutledge, the country’s highest paid executive in 2016, earning $98 million.

“We’re going to demand respect for the blood and sweat of the workforce,” Cuomo said in a speech to workers at Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza Park, on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. The rally was attended by Charter strikers and several unions in solidarity with the cable company workers.

Nearly 1,800 Charter employees belonging to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Local 3), walked out in late March after Charter sought to kill their pension plan and move them to a less generous health care plan. They have been on strike ever since, with no sign of progress towards ending the action.

“Screwing over workers and customers seems to be a hallmark of Charter Communications’ business model,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in an earlier statement. “Charter has disrespected workers in New York who remain on strike fighting for the freedom to negotiate together to maintain their pensions and health benefits. They also continue to disregard their customers’ needs by hiking rates while providing sub par service. This is not the way to run a company, and we support all the working people standing up to these corporate bullies.”

“Charter is offering Local 3 a generous compensation package that includes an average 22-percent wage increase — some employees up to a 55-percent wage increase — and comprehensive retirement and health benefits, including a 401(k) that provides a dollar-for-dollar match up to 6 percent of eligible pay,” counters Charter spokesman John Bonomo.

Spectrum customers in Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn, and Queens are decidedly caught in the middle, enduring more than 130 outages — some taking out service for hours, as a result of alleged repeated vandalism the company suspects is caused by striking workers. But the union notes Charter’s replacement workers are often unqualified, some taking hours to manage repairs that would “take us 10 minutes.” When Charter doesn’t have enough workers on hand to manage a repair, they call in third-party contractors. Some of them were on hand to deal with fiber optic cable cuts that took out Spectrum service for tens of thousands of customers, often in Queens and Brooklyn.

A June outage lasted almost an entire day after contractors took more than 16 hours trying to splice a cut fiber cable. Police sources blamed the striking workers.

“We would never condone that,” on-strike Spectrum technician Ray Reyes told WCBS. “We would never do that.”

A Charter employee picketing a Spectrum store.

Before the strike, Charter claims there have been only five fiber-related service outages in the last few years. Since the strike began, the company claims it has experienced 137 outages it attributed primarily to vandals. Some customers and small business owners are losing whatever sympathy they had for the striking workers.

Restaurant manager Samantha Phe has to turn away customers using credit cards every time her Spectrum internet service goes down and she is tired of being in the middle of a labor dispute.

“I think that’s a little unfair to the community,” Phe told the TV station. “Say if your company isn’t doing well for you, you’re trying to punish someone else who didn’t do anything to you.”

Many reporters in New York are barely hiding their disdain for the union and strikers, presumably because they have been affected by repeated outages as well. WCBS political reporter Marcia Kramer avoided talking to union workers in a recent report, but shouted questions to the mayor about what he feels about cable outages. She also talked to small business owners upset about the service outages.

Business owner Anthony Velez was emblematic of the level of frustration being experienced by Spectrum customers enduring repeated outages:

Velez owns Bagriculture, which was unable to conduct business when the service went out. He was also unable to access his security system, and he is furious that Cuomo and de Blasio are supporting the workers and ignoring his plight.

“I don’t think that shows the right ethics that we would look for in our mayor, or a governor,” he said.

He said politicians treat business owners as “little invisible people.”

“I don’t think there’s a lot of people who care about small business owners,” Velez said.

But not all reporters are siding with Charter.

In response to a statement from Charter blaming an outage in mid-September on “the latest round of criminal destruction of our network,” Select/All reporter Jake Swearingen asked, “Why do they always attack the aging internet infrastructure that’s been systematically underfunded for years in order to line shareholders’ pockets!

WCBS-TV political reporter Marcia Kramer took some heat over her alleged pro-Charter positions in this story about the rally. (1:36)

T-Mobile Increases True Unlimited to 50GB a Month Before Speed Throttling

T-Mobile today announced it was boosting the amount of data its “unlimited data” customers can use before they are subject to speed throttling from 32GB to 50GB, effective Sept. 20, 2017.

“Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T sit at a meager 22GB, meaning Un-carrier customers can use more than 2x the data before prioritization kicks in,” wrote Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s chief technology officer. “Now, 50GB of data usage means a T-Mobile customer is basically the top 1% of data users, and to put it in context, you could stream a full two hours of Netflix every single day – that’s 30 SD movies – and never even reach that point! You’d still have roughly 8GB to go.”

Like other wireless companies, “unlimited data” does not actually mean “unlimited.” Providers allot a certain allowance of truly unlimited data which, once exceeded, subjects the customer to speed-reducing “throttles” until the next bill cycle begins. T-Mobile claims it only throttles customers when a customer exceeds their “prioritization” allowance — 50GB as of tomorrow — and the cell tower they are using is currently experiencing congestion.

“When T-Mobile customers who use the most data hit these prioritization points during the month, they get in line behind other customers who have used less data and may experience reduced speeds,” Ray wrote. “But this impacts them only very rarely, like when there is a big line, and it resets every month. If you have a lot of congestion in your network (I’m looking at you, Verizon & AT&T), these lines can be long and deprioritized customers can be waiting a long time.”

No wireless company will provide data on which cell towers are likely to experience the most congestion, how many customers are speed throttled, or what speeds customers will get for how long before the throttle usually drops. But it is definitely harder to hit 50GB than 22 or 32GB, which means fewer customers are likely to find their wireless data connections throttled.

There has been no response yet from T-Mobile’s competitors — AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.

Denver Spent Last Night Without Comcast; One Fiber Line Cut Wipes Cable Out

Phillip Dampier September 19, 2017 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 3 Comments

A construction crew accidentally severed a single fiber optic cable on Monday and wiped out TV, broadband, and phone service for Comcast customers in metropolitan Denver.

The outage began at 4:30pm and lasted until around midnight when service was restored. Customers reported problems across Denver, Aurora, and other surrounding areas.

In these circumstances, Comcast does not usually give automatic bill credits for service outages — customers have to request them. But the widespread outage triggered a press release from Comcast claiming service credits will be automatic for “affected customers:”

We appreciate everyone’s patience during yesterday’s service outage in the Denver area. We regret the impact to our customers and we want to make it right. We are conducting an investigation into the cause and full impact of the outage. Upon completion of the investigation and identification of the impacted residential customers, we will automatically apply credits to their accounts.

If you are still experiencing issues with your service please send your account number and a brief description to our customer care team by clicking here or connect with an agent by phone or chat here.

If you want to be certain about receiving a credit, contact Comcast directly and ask for one instead of waiting for them.

Verizon Wireless Pushes Customer to Upgrade Data Plan Before Closing His Account

Danny, who lives in eastern Hancock County, Me., was more than a little confused by his September Verizon Wireless bill.

“You haven’t had an overage yet, but you recently cut it close,” warned the wireless company. Verizon’s definition of “cutting it close” was using 7.3GB of data in June, 7GB in July, and 7.4GB in August. His data plan includes an allowance of 12GB a month, and he only used just over half of that. Despite that, Verizon Wireless recommended he “get on the right plan.” For Danny, who already spends nearly $250 a month with Verizon, that would mean an upgrade to “Beyond Unlimited,” which offers “unlimited” 4G LTE data (subject to throttling once you head north of 22GB of usage a month) and 15GB of hotspot usage. The added cost? Another $52.99 a month, taking Danny’s bill to $300 a month.

A $300 cell phone bill might be a subject of a story all on its own, but what really got Danny’s attention was a billing notice (and letter mailed separately to his home), telling him his family was being kicked off Verizon Wireless and his account would be closed Oct. 17. The reason? He was “using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network:”

The same company inviting him to spend $52 more on an unlimited data plan has now dis-invited him as a customer because it didn’t like how and where he used the existing data plan that came with his account.

“I checked all of my data usage for the past 12 months,” Danny tells Stop the Cap! “Data usage was anywhere from 3.5GB (for three lines), up to 8.5GB.  We have rollover data as part of our plan (previous month of unused data rolls over to the next month). One month we used 16GB (that was the month that we drove to Texas and back), but still never went over the data we had available.”

Danny’s family uses their phones primarily in eastern Hancock County, a well-recognized trouble spot for cell phone dead zones until Wireless Partners, an independent cell tower owner/operator, partnered with Verizon Wireless to construct new cell towers using spectrum acquired by Verizon. Many of the cell sites were specifically designed to reach Downeast Maine, home to a number of small communities — some drawing tourists in the summer and others not. Wireless Partners’ new towers concentrated improved coverage along the Route 1 corridor between Ellsworth and Calais, and the Route 9 corridor known to the locals as the Airline — from Calais to Aurora, communities mostly east of Bangor on roads that take visitors to communities like Bar Harbor, right on the coast, or all the way to the New Brunswick border.

Downeast Maine

In this part of Maine, customers have to choose their cellular provider carefully because no company offers solid coverage in every community in the region. Those living in more tourist-focused communities or cities on the coast or one of the offshore islands often select U.S. Cellular, a regional carrier that has accepted millions of federal dollars from the Universal Service Fund to expand service. U.S. Cellular has added towers in communities like Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn, Ellsworth and the Presque Isle-Houlton area. But in many smaller towns, U.S. Cellular reception often disappears. The other two providers — Verizon Wireless and AT&T — focus most of their attention on cities like Portland, Augusta and Bangor, and along I-95 and in popular tourist areas on the coast.

“Unlike in many other states, if you choose the wrong carrier in Maine, you get absolutely no reception at home and perhaps one bar, if you are lucky, while on the road going to work or doing errands,” said Mike Fastler, a lifelong resident. “More than anywhere else I know, people here talk to their neighbors about what cell company works for them, and in a lot of towns almost everyone relies on the same company because it is the only one that delivers good reception.”

Fastler says in large parts of Downeast Maine east of I-95, Verizon Wireless has recently been the most solid, primarily because its network has been supplemented with towers built by Wireless Partners, which has prioritized improving cell reception around the inland areas of Washington and Hancock counties. The customers most likely of being booted by Verizon Wireless are customers that live and/or work in these two counties.

Customers like Danny have no idea Verizon considers them roaming abusers because when using cell towers run by Wireless Partners, Verizon devices show reception as part of Verizon’s home LTE network. No roaming indicators appear at all. But Verizon must still pay Wireless Partners when their customers use the third-party company’s cell towers. Verizon’s interpretation of its customer agreement allows it to terminate customers found roaming excessively. The question is, is 7GB of usage on a cell tower network built to augment Verizon Wireless’ coverage area be defined as “excessive.”

Verizon thinks so, telling Ars Technica:

“These customers live outside of areas where Verizon operates our own network,” Verizon said. “Many of the affected consumer lines use a substantial amount of data while roaming on other providers’ networks and the roaming costs generated by these lines exceed what these consumers pay us each month.”

But Danny and many other affected readers tell us their usage is well below 10GB a month. Some customers received termination notices and use an average of only 3GB a month and live near a Wireless Partners tower.

“It seems highly unlikely Verizon Wireless is incurring costs that are exceeding customers’ bills,” adds Fastler, who is also scheduled to be canceled on Oct. 17. “I used 1.5GB in August and never came close to hitting 5GB on our account over the last two years and I am being shut off.”

Fastler tried to sign up as a new Verizon Wireless customer with his wife to escape the account closure, but Verizon Wireless’ crackdown is complete and the company has at least temporarily stopped accepting new customers in areas where its third-party cell tower operators provide service.

“Give them your zip code and if it is in an affected area the system kicks the order out and won’t accept it,” reports Fastler.

Jason Sulham, a spokesperson for Wireless Partners confirms Verizon’s order lockdown on Maine Public Radio in response to questions about just how many customers are being removed from Verizon’s network.

“Verizon is restricting any new customers in those areas, so when you talk about what that final number is, what they have indicated is a final number of current customers who have received a termination letter. However, that doesn’t take into account the number of people who are in that area that can’t even sign up as new customers for the service, which is certainly not what was part of the original intent of building this network,” Sulham says.

The crackdown on rural coverage will make life exceptionally difficult for affected customers. Maine is America’s most rural state, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, with more than 61% of the population living in communities of less than 2,500. Many of those communities are spread far apart, making cell towers difficult to place to reach the largest number of customers. Some communities have access to just one tower. Others are only partly serviced, requiring users to go outside, run up nearby hills, or take a short drive to get a single bar of reception. That is why Verizon’s news has hit this part of Maine so hard.

For many locals, Wireless Partners solved a problem Verizon itself wouldn’t solve, and stronger cell coverage came as a result. Now Verizon threatens to recreate the original problem, and by limiting access to its partner networks, it could throw those companies’ business plans into the air and make them financially untenable.

Irma Survivors Direct Wrath at Charter/Spectrum for Non-Answers

Phillip Dampier September 18, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, HissyFitWatch 3 Comments

The Orlando Sentinel got more than it asked for when it requested readers share their experiences with utility service outages in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which pounded Florida last week.

Readers reserved the most wrath for Charter Communications, which has evidently been less than forthcoming about service restoration.

“Give me something other than ‘we depend on somebody else and we have no idea about anything.’ […] That’s not an appropriate answer,” shared one Winter Park customer.

Charter’s spokespeople have blamed most of the outages on “the massive loss of commercial power that the state suffered.”

Customers seemed to buy that explanation until early this week, days after getting their power back.

“As I read their answer, it’s basically a lot of nothing,” opined the customer. “My experience with calling them is their answer is so vague [….] They could probably be a little more reassuring explaining ‘in this area the power comes from this place, and that place has an ETA of this, therefore some days later they expect this will be online.’”

“Our power was restored in the Crown Pt. Springs subdivision in Winter Garden on Monday afternoon, which we were very thankful for,” another reader said in an email. “I sure wish I could say the same thing about our Spectrum services (cable, internet and phone). As of right now, there is still no restoration.”

Still another: “Spectrum should be able to give their customers an estimated restoration time, like the power companies have. I haven’t seen one Spectrum truck in the Winter Garden or Ocoee area … not one!!! My husband drives a tractor-trailer for Coke and has seen one on the road this week. We are sick of them blaming the power companies for the reason that they can’t get into areas.”

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